Ruling AKP creating its own NGOs, group says
Barçın Yinanç - firstname.lastname@example.orgIn contrast to more liberal policies pursued by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in its initial years in power, the space for civil society in Turkey today is deteriorating rapidly, Third Sector Foundation of Turkey (TÜSEV) head Tevfik Başak Ersen has told the Hürriyet Daily News.
AKP rule increasingly relies on “GONGOs,” or government-oriented NGOs, with groups close to the government supported but the rest excluded and seen increasingly as a threat, according to Ersen, whose TÜSEV issues regular reports on the state of civil society in Turkey.
What is the general state of civil society organizations in Turkey?
Turkey’s civil society is the reflection of the country. When the country suffers from an economic, political or social problem, civil society is directly affected.
What is perhaps special at the moment is that the political dimension is felt a bit more strongly than in the past, as Turkey is facing a new phenomenon: a single-party government that has been in power for 13 years. We see fluctuations in this government’s policies and I think civil society has followed a parallel course.
There is an increase in the number and the capacity of civil society. The European Union accession process of reforms in the AKP’s first years was the main determining factor for this. The legal framework has changed during the AKP government. The law on associations had dated from the 1980 military coup. The government changed that law and the the law on foundations. As a result, there has been a serious increase in the number of associations, and currently it is around 110,000. There has also been a serious increase in membership numbers as well.
How does this compare to world standards?
Turkey’s population is approaching 80 million. That means one association for every 750 people, or 13 percent. In Scandinavian countries, there is 10 associations for each person. We are not really on an advanced scale; in fact we are far behind the developed world. We also see that the administrative members of associations and foundations are mostly male, upper middle-aged and relatively educated. The number of women members is very low – just 4 percent. The membership numbers among youth are equally very low.
But numbers don’t show everything. Of the 110,000 associations, 25 percent are associations to construct and sustain a mosque. I personally am not against that. The tendency of undertaking religious services as a civil society activity is widespread in the world, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. But there is something specific to Turkey; it is related to urbanization. You erect a mosque, set up an association, legalize the funding and then construct houses around the mosque, building a new neighbourhood.
So in our case, the first group belongs to associations related to mosques, then come sports. And you know the situation of sports in Turkey. When you take away all of these, the most striking result to me is this: all of the associations and foundations could be doing very important things, but the number of those who are truly conducting rights-based activities aiming to affect public policies and inform the public opinion, like the ones working on children’s rights or women’s rights, is very low.
That number is 1.5 percent among associations and 0.5 percent among foundations.
What does this tell us?
Turkish civil society is still in the early stages when compared to the Western context.
Civil society still focuses on charitable activities. They are entities to fulfill the role that the state has designed for civil society. For example, the state says: “we have certain needs in the education sector. Don’t bother changing education policies, but I have a campaign to construct a school. Go build a school and then donate it to me.”
Civil society organizations are present in the space that the state leaves for us, and we exist to the extent of the role that has been designed for us by the state. The moment you start saying, “yes, but there is democracy; we want to be part of that process of democratic governance,” then the numbers of associations [that say this] diminishes and there is state intervention in the true sense of the word.
So what happened in the course of these 13 years? You said it started well at the beginning of the AKP’s governance. Did the changes on the regulations remain on paper?
It was not just on paper, there was an improvement in the implementation, too. Some steps were taken on the Kurdish issue, for instance. The first period was very liberal and that had a very positive reflection on civil society because there was better dialogue at the time.
I think there was a culture of consultation, partly due to the AKP’s insufficient capacity to govern at that time. Civil society organizations could participate in the decision-making processes, and what they were saying was taken into account. The government used to listen more.
But in its second phase, the AKP preferred not to consult with civil society organizations.
Then came the fact that together with an increase in its governance capacity and self-confidence, the AKP started to become the state itself.
The AKP’s difference from previous governments is that it came to power understanding the meaning and importance of civil society. While coming to power and afterwards, the AKP used civil initiatives very effectively. In its second phase, we see that they set up government-oriented NGOs, the “GONGOs,” and they used NGOs that are close to them very effectively and excluded the rest. The way it is reflected in their rhetoric goes like this: “We did consult civil society.” Yes, but which civil society? GONGOs or the ones close to them.
The third phase which came after 2010 is more dramatic; there, we see a more distant attitude toward civil society, and that’s the phase when we had the Gezi Park demonstrations as well as the Dec. 17, 2013, graft allegations followed by the operation against the “parallel structure.”
This is a phase where the AKP adheres much more to security policies. It continues to support civil society organizations that it sees itself as close to, but perceives the rest as a threat. We have also seen measures that directly target these organizations.
Can you elaborate?
This is a government that understood the importance of civil society, but at the same time, it has realized that if left alone, [these organizations] will not go in the direction it wants. The AKP wants to bring everything under control. We have seen [Turkish] governments that have said, “If this country needs communism, we will bring it.”
So this isn’t much different. Just as in the past the state oppressed everything that it saw as dangerous, the same is true for the AKP now; things that are seen as dangerous are kept under pressure and even punished. We see this approach: “If you don’t think like me, don’t be there.”
In our report monitoring 2013-2014, we underlined that the area where civil society is operating has been shrinking. Pressure has been on the rise, especially on the exercise of the right to organize, the right to assembly and the right to freedom of expression. There are serious threats to civil liberties.
The Kurdish issue has always been very problematic, and there is currently tremendous pressure on rights-based organization that deal with one or another aspect of the Kurdish issue, such as the closure of associations, detentions and all sorts of other harassments.
Who is Tevfik Başak Ersen?
After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science from Istanbul University, T. Başak Ersen completed his master’s degree on the same subject at Long Island University in New York. After working in a variety of different consulting firms, Ersen joined the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey (TUSEV) in 2004 and is currently serving as the secretary general of the organization.
Ersen is also an elected member of the Council of Foundations, the highest decision-making body within the General Directorate of Foundations. Aside from providing his expertise on association and foundation legislation to different entities, Ersen has written a significant number of articles and reports on subjects including capacity building in the non-profit sector, public sector-civil society partnership, legal reform and lobbying for NGOs, tax legislation improvement and social entrepreneurship development.